The Georgian presidential administration announced
on November 20 a high-profile personnel reshuffle that will impact crucial aspects of domestic and foreign policy, including relations with Washington and ongoing efforts to bring the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under the control of the central government.
Temur Yakobashvili, currently deputy prime minister and state minister for reintegration, has been named ambassador to the United States, replacing former Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia, who has held that post since December 2008. National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili takes over from Yakobashvili as minister for reintegration, while First Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria will succeed Tkeshelashvili at the National Security Council.
No explanation has been given for the changes, nor it is clear whether the timing of the announcement of a new ambassador to Washington -- 24 hours after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili held his first one-on-one talks with U.S. President Barack Obama -- is pure coincidence.
Yakobashvili was quoted by civil.ge
on November 22 as having told Georgian Public Television the previous day that "a whole range of new possibilities" had opened up in Georgian-U.S. relations that made it possible to "lift relations with the United States to a new level."
Specifically, Yakobashvili stressed the importance Tbilisi attaches to "full-fledged implementation" of the "Charter on Strategic Partnership" Tbilisi and Washington signed
in January 2009, a formulation that implies failure on the part of Kutelia to pressure Washington more effectively to deliver on its obligations, both formal and perceived, under that charter.
The charter in question was drafted by the outgoing Bush administration, and, unlike a treaty, is nonbinding. It affirms Washington's support for democratization in Georgia; for the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity; and for Tbilisi's aspiration for full integration into "European and trans-Atlantic political, economic, security, and defense institutions," meaning the European Union and NATO.
The charter further stresses that the United States supports Georgia's efforts "to provide for its legitimate security and defense needs." It was that provision that the Georgian leadership initially sought to capitalize on, but without success. President Saakashvili told "The Washington Post" on the eve of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Tbilisi in July 2009 that he would ask
the United States to provide Georgia with antitank and antiaircraft weapons, but Washington reportedly declined that request, while reaffirming its readiness to provide advice and training for the Georgian military and its appreciation of Georgia's deployment of a contingent to serve with the NATO deployment in Afghanistan, according to a Stratfor analysis of July 23, 2009.
The issue of acquiring defensive weaponry was raised anew during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's brief visit to Georgia in July 2010, but again Washington refrained from any formal commitment. In an interview with "Newsweek
" in September 2010, Saakashvili again argued that Georgia needed such arms, as "leaving Georgia defenseless...is a big temptation to Russia."
It is not clear whether Kutelia is being made the scapegoat for Washington's steadfast disinclination to provide Georgia with arms, especially as rumors of his replacement first surfaced six months ago. Certainly Yakobashvili is a more experienced diplomat, having served in the 1990s in the Georgian Foreign Ministry, most notably as director of its department for the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. He also has a reputation for "thinking outside the box," possibly making him better qualified than Kutelia to devise and propose policy options advantageous to Georgia that would not negatively impact on the fitful "reset" process in U.S.-Russian relations.
Alternatively, or in addition, Yakobashvili and Tkeshelashvili in her new position may be called on jointly to spearhead a new campaign to drum up international support for what British professor George Hewitt described
as Yakobashvili's "fine, lofty, and useless" strategy for "reintegrating" the two breakaway regions.
Gia Bokeria's move from the Foreign Ministry to the National Security Council will doubtless be construed by conspiracy theorists as reflecting the determination of Saakashvili's United National Movement (EEM) to sideline, compromise or otherwise neutralize the fragmented and fractious opposition in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in 2012. As a former leading member of the EEM parliament faction, Bokeria has an unparalleled knowledge of the political scene and, crucially, of those former prominent EEM and establishment political figures now in opposition to Saakashvili. Saakashvili is said to trust Bokeria absolutely and to have named him among a handful of people he considers capable of governing the country.
Moreover, Saakashvili reportedly plans to augment the powers of the National Security Council, transferring to it responsibility for drafting an assessment of the security threats the country faces, according to Caucasus Press on November 24.
Still unclear is who will take over from Bokeria as head of the Georgian delegation to the ongoing Geneva talks between Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.